Palestinians are being punished indiscriminately for the smallest concession the settlers fear Israel might make in the diplomatic arena.
Israel's 'price tag' terrorism has tactical political goals
Violent, so-called "price tag" attacks by Jewish settlers have become a staple of life for Palestinian communities over the past few months. The latest is the torching this week of a mosque in the village of Jaba, close to the city of Ramallah.
Palestinians in areas of the West Bank under Israeli control live with settler neighbours who beat and shoot them, set alight fields, poison wells, kill livestock and steal crops. These acts of terror have begun to spread elsewhere: homes, cars, cemeteries, mosques and churches are now targets in East Jerusalem and Israel too. Earlier this month a school and several cars were vandalised in Neve Shalom, the only genuinely mixed Jewish-Arab community in Israel.
Invariably the "price" invoked by the settlers is unrelated to any Palestinian action. Instead Palestinians are punished indiscriminately for the smallest concession the settlers fear Israel might make in the diplomatic arena.
Superficially, the settlers' behaviour looks like a particularly vicious form of tantrum-throwing, but there are tangible benefits to be gained from the trail of destruction they leave behind.
They provided a clue to their reasoning, as they always do in "price-tag" attacks, on the walls of Jaba's mosque. In black spray-paint, they spelt out their grievance: "Ulpana".
Ulpana, also near Ramallah and home to 30 Jewish families, is a settler "outpost" - one of more than 100 such settlements-in-the-making that are scattered across the West Bank. Unlike a similar number of much larger and more established settlements, which are illegal under international law, the outposts violate Israeli law too.
After years of petitions from human-rights groups, Israel's Supreme Court has reluctantly ruled recently that Ulpana must be removed. D-Day for the settlers, July 1, is rapidly approaching.
The torching of the mosque - the settlers' trump card - was intended chiefly as a reminder to Israel's right-wing government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, that any move against them risks triggering a round of intensified violence that will further damage Israel's image with the international community.
But it was also designed to dampen the enthusiasm of the courts for further costly run-ins with settlers. The Supreme Court, settlers hope, will be in no hurry to enforce the destruction of future Ulpanas.
Following the torching of Jaba's mosque, Mr Netanyahu made the usual formulaic nods towards enforcing the rule of law. Dan Halutz, a former military chief of staff, was more candid, admitting there was no will to stop such attacks. "If we wanted, we could catch them [the perpetrators], and when we want to, we will," he told Army Radio.
There are no signs a change of heart from the army is imminent. In fact, quite the reverse: for the past two decades the settlers have been strenuously working to take over the military's combat units and its top ranks. What was once the Israeli people's army is now very much the preserve of the settlers. The resulting collusion has been amply on display in recent weeks as a stream of embarrassing "occupation videos" have surfaced.
A few weeks ago, for example, Shalom Eisner, one of the new breed of settlers turned army commander, was caught on film smashing his rifle butt into the face of a Danish peace activist in the Jordan Valley. Mr Eisner's only remorse, after the video was aired on Israeli TV, was to concede: "Maybe it was a professional mistake to use the gun when there were cameras around."
And last month Palestinians in Asira Al Qibliya, near Nablus, filmed soldiers abetting armed settlers as they attacked the village. While villagers threw stones to repel the invaders, settlers opened fire, seriously injuring a youth. All the while, the soldiers could be seen guarding the settlers, clearly neither in danger from the Palestinians nor interested in stopping the shooting.
Israelis have not asked why, in cases such as the Asira video, where the faces of the lawbreaking settlers and soldiers are clearly visible, there have been no arrests.
Nor are they questioning Mr Netanyahu's response to the Ulpana ruling. He has adopted the modus operandi of the settlers, inflicting his own price tag, this time on the courts: at the latest count, 60 new homes are to be built in a relocated Ulpana settlement for every one targeted by the judges.
But his pandering to the settlers has gone even further. He has effectively declared Ulpana's existing five apartment blocks sacred territory, vowing, despite the enormous cost, to "saw" them: that is, to move them wholesale to the new site in the West Bank. In this way, he has sanctioned the very zealotry that finds its perfect justification and expression in the price tag attacks.
Ordinary Israelis are likewise adopting a mood that chimes with that of the settlers. The mounting documentary evidence of the settlers' brutality, difficult for Israelis to ignore or deny, is rapidly hardening public opinion.
This toughening of public emotion leaves Israelis both indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians and in a mood for violence and vengeance towards any non-Jews who share their state, including not only 1.5 million Palestinian citizens but also migrant workers and now African asylum-seekers.
Once Israelis longed to believe in their own mythical slogans of ethical superiority: they had the "most moral army in the world" and their soldiers, as Golda Meir famously observed, suffered uniquely from an oversensitivity syndrome termed "shoot and cry".
Nowadays, even the pretence of soul-searching is gone. If Israelis have a current motto, it is "shoot and shrug your shoulders".
Jonathan Cook is a journalist based in Nazareth